Picture this: it’s a dark and cold November evening in Durham and you’ve just arrived back at the flat from a 5-6pm lecture. You head into the kitchen to heat up your Tesco-bought carbonara and bring it into your room. Prior to indulging in your feast, you go on YouTube, click onto your favourite mukbanger’s latest upload, and tune into it over dinner. Maybe you’re missing home a little extra today and could do with some company, which you unfortunately can’t get from your flatmates who are either knee-deep in lecture catch-up or just hopelessly awkward individuals who don’t like to socialise. Either way, mukbang seems to be the perfect solution: watching a content creator binge-eat ridiculous quantities of food whilst interacting with their audience might help you feel more connected with others, or maybe just less alone. What could possibly be wrong with that?
After all, the very concept of eating is, in many cultures, tied to the experience of eating together. This can certainly be said for South Korea – the birthplace of mukbang – where huge importance is placed on sharing food during mealtimes. Even the Korean word for family, sik-gu, (식구) actually means ‘those who share food from the same pot.’ What’s more, there are major benefits associated with communal eating in terms of our social and emotional wellbeing, such as higher self-esteem, improved communication skills, and a decreased risk of developing mental health disorders, just to name a few.
Still, can mukbang really provide the warmth that you naturally feel when you and your mates are digging into a burrito at Zaps for a post-summative season treat? I think not. But with communal eating becoming significantly less commonplace, it’s no wonder we’ve seen an increase in the search for this type of connection in the form of virtual dinner companions.
I personally think that loneliness plays a huge part in mukbang culture. People need somebody to eat with, so they use mukbang as a way to alleviate any unwelcome feelings that may come with being alone. And understandably so. There’s a plethora of reasons why people find themselves eating alone now more than ever. One reason we should consider is that isolated living is globally at an all-time high: in South Korea, the heart of mukbang culture, single-person households accounted for 34.5% of all households in 2022, with the figures at 29% and 30% for the US and the UK respectively, where mukbang is becoming increasingly popular.
Now, truth be told, if mukbang were just about watching a content creator eat a regular meal while chatting about their day, I doubt there’d be much controversy surrounding it. The main issue seems to lie in how much food is seen to be consumed on camera. In 2019, Seoul National University researchers studied 6000 mukbang videos. The results? 83% of them showed single eaters consuming more than 3 meals worth of food. But why does it have to be binge-eating? Can’t it just be about virtually reuniting lonely hearts in the spirit of unity and togetherness? I guess there isn’t much an amateur creator can do with regular-sized food portions to become successful – I imagine that would get very unremarkable very quickly. In any case, YouTube is all about competition: the more unique you are, the more attention you’ll get, the more famous you’ll become, and the more money you’ll make.
However, research shows that frequently engaging with this content can alter individuals’ eating habits. For example, viewers may consume more than they usually would because people’s consumption norms can easily be influenced by those of others, an article in Frontiers in Psychology found. Also, the fact that most mukbangers appear on camera as slim and healthy individuals can lead viewers to perceive binge-eating as a normal behaviour that doesn’t lead to negative consequences like gaining weight or health problems. But make no mistake! Mukbangers often use editing tricks to make it look like they’ve swallowed vast heaps of food. Many of them also follow strict exercise regimes, or binge and purge, to keep in shape.
Others use mukbang to implement restrictive eating habits. Rather than eating that food themselves, they like to watch videos of other people doing it. This way, they get all of the pleasure – mukbang vicariously satisfies their hunger – and none of the “negative” consequences.
Food waste opens up a whole new conversation. In 2021, China banned the making and distribution of shows featuring excessive eating as a way of combatting this issue, with offenders risking a fine of up to 100,000 yuan (around £11,200).
Image credit: Calgary Reviews via Wikimedia Commons